The Hormones Made Her Do ItOctober 18, 2011
The importance of increased women’s representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has been featured in countless newspaper articles, blogs, and published reports. In the last few weeks, it was also addressed at a White House event in support of the National Science Foundation’s Career-Life Balance Initiative. For the most part, discourse around this issue has focused on overthrowing biological justifications for gender disparities and highlighting the social and cultural hurdles that prevent more women from participating and excelling in STEM. But given the progressive momentum that has been pushing this issue forward, I was struck by a scientific study featured in a recent Time magazine article and the way it seemed to uphold gendered ideas regarding women and STEM.
In this study, researchers linked women who have an interest in STEM fields with a genetic condition caused by exposure to a male sex hormone called androgen. The study also concluded that there was no significant difference between young men with exposure to high levels of androgen and those without; they were both equally interested in STEM fields. According to the research findings, women are naturally more interested in “people” than “things” and thus more likely to become teachers or social workers. Women who are lucky enough to be exposed to male androgen hormone are more likely to be drawn to “things” and thus have an increased chance of becoming engineers or surgeons.
Seriously, this is a scientific study released in 2011? Women like “people,” men like “things” … because of hormones … and that’s why women are underrepresented in STEM fields?
What’s even more disturbing than the tired, generalized notions built into the foundation of their study is that the Pennsylvania State University researchers make no mention of the ways men and boys are culturally conditioned to pursue careers in STEM fields while women and girls are taught that success in these arenas is incompatible with traditional ideals of femininity and beauty. This omission disregards more than a decade of work on stereotype threat theory and certifies innate male ownership of STEM interests. The study’s biological conclusion elides the impact of stereotypes in the psychology and behavior of women and girls. It assumes that all participants are granted a level playing field from the start and that only the girls who were exposed to high levels of the androgen hormone pursue careers in STEM. Unfortunately, the reality is that girls are much more likely to be encouraged to watch passively from the sidelines as the boys and men handle the heavy lifting of math, science, and technology.
The danger of the Penn State study lies in its perpetuation of the same old “see girls, you don’t really like STEM” rhetoric, disguised as objective science.
This post was written by AAUW Leadership Programs Intern Jennifer M. Perdomo.